Saturday 19 September 2020

Chapter 8 - Between Luxor and Aswan, Saturday 25 February, 1990

Up very early again, to the station to catch the 6 am train to Aswan.  It breaks my heart to leave Luxor - it always does, but today more than usual, I don't know why.  Out of the Savoy, to see the Theban Hills for the last time on this trip.  Perhaps for ever - who knows when or whether we will ever return, what lies ahead?  And yet to work on the assumption that you will never see a thing again is terrifying - how can you possibly look hard enough, see everything before the train leaves, or the boat departs?  But that is what most tourism is based on: most people come to see something, then leave, secure in the knowledge that they have 'done' it, and need never come again.  I, on the other hand, have to believe that I will return.  Life would simply be unbearable without that hope for the future.

Anyway, on the train now.  The others snoozing or talking away.  For some reason Janet is laughing her head off, making all the Egyptians stare at her.  I wish she wouldn't.

I can't help remembering the first time I went to Aswan from Luxor.  I took a taxi so that I could stop off at some fairly inaccessible sites along the way.  Apart from these, the road was pretty dull: just mile after hair-raising mile - Egyptians seem to love mad, reckless driving - of straight road with occasional poor towns, a donkey, lush fields either side.  

Then we crossed over a long bridge to the west bank, at Esna.  A dusty, fly-blown place.  But in the middle, in a huge pit like a caged monster, was an extraordinary temple, reached by stairs descending some fifty feet or more.  This strange sight has been caused by the Egyptians' habit of building their houses on the top of old ones - causing the level of the land to rise over time, and leaving ancient monuments yards down.  Unfortunately the chief attraction of the temple was its position - otherwise it showed the typical degradation of style found in all the stuff dating from the Ptolemies - none of the architectural elements meant anything, it was all just convention.  But amazing to think that over two thousand years ago this was the fag-end of a two thousand year old tradition.  Nice flowery capitals to the columns as I recall, though.  

Back on the east bank, the desert really asserted itself south of this point.  The road was the boundary: crops to the right, bare desert to the left.  The Nile's inundation must have seemed truly miraculous to the ancient Egyptians, offering life from death.  Everything would revolve around it.  About here I remember passing some mounds that could have been crumbling mud pyramids, and ugly factories belching smoke.

Next stop: Edfu.  Once more, through backstreets to an apparent dead-end.  Then through a small gate - and you are confronted with another Ramses III-type temple, huge and in almost perfect condition.  But once again, that Ptolemaic slackness, and crudeness of execution.  An empire in the last stages of decadence.  I recall how the hieroglyphs had retreated into the background, looking Chinese almost - they would have been practically meaningless by now - and images rather than words dominated things - rather like our own degenerate era.

Finally on to Kom Ombo - what good names they have.  This is a only a ruin, reached down a long, tiny side road - I began to wonder whether my driver had got lost.  An atmospheric ruin though, perched on the edge of the Nile with some attractive greenery and islands providing the backdrop.  Its general air was very Greek - appropriately enough, since the Ptolemies were descended from Alexander the Great.  

But if I think back to all this Ptolemaic stuff, I inevitably think of the greatest of their temples - that of Denderah, another place I failed to see this time.

Once again, I reached it from Luxor by taxi - it only takes about an hour, for a fare of E£40 as I recall.  Denderah is unusual in that it sits in solitary splendour, away from any squalid towns, or even any other antiquities.  It is astonishingly complete.  In particular, it offers the visitor perhaps the best experience of entering a fully-covered Egyptian building - an important difference from the more ruinous ones that are open to sky.

It turns out that the darkness was an important element in the overall effect of these mighty temples - and Denderah is as mighty as any in its way, though spoilt again by the lateness of its style.

You enter through an archway into a large, walled court.  At the end, the temple looms up like a crouching beast, great black spaces visible between its massive pillars.  There are six of these, three deep, all carrying the huge cow-head of the goddess Hathor.  Unfortunately the sculptures were much damaged by overzealous Copts - luckily the Hathor heads were mostly left intact - and they also left the hieroglyphs, which is intriguing: did they recognise or acknowledge some deep affinity, some link here?  Or was it just ignorance or indifference?

A few feet in and it is already dark - and the outside looks blindingly bright.  Stepping through into the inner hypostyle hall, you are suddenly unable to see until your eyes adjust.  There are various small rooms off to the side, but the main route lies forward, ever deeper and ever darker. Pigeons flap around occasionally overhead, adding to the eerie quality.  The central sanctum, at the heart of this stone, of this darkness, was one of the most atmospheric holy places I've ever been to.

Also memorable was the view from the roof - reached by a staircase with exactly 100 steps.  No protection on the roof from a 70 or 80 foot drop.  Along the roof edge, hundreds of tourist graffiti, mostly from the ubiquitous British.  I noted some down in the margin of my Blue Guide: Charles Inby, May 1817; T Sproat, C P Parker 1827; John Gordon 1804; John Malcolm 1822; Holroyd 1833; D W Nash 1836; E K Hume 1836.  I wonder who they were, what they did, what they experienced up here?  I feel now - as I felt then when I saw their names for the first time - strangely obliged to record their identities, this achievement - tiny though it is - to memorialise them.  Perhaps in the almost superstitious though vain hope that someone might do the same for me one day.  And their names shall live for ever....

Brilliant view: I remember hills to the west, the stratified rocks turning from yellow to pink.  A vast string of modern-day pylons loped from horizon to horizon.  The whole Nilotic plain spread before me.  Nearby a dry, sunken court - the sacred lake - with six huge palm trees.  Rubble all around the place like a huge rubbish dump.  And a sound too: I vividly recall the terrible bronchitic squeals of a poor donkey rending the air, mourning its abject life.  And the sun breaking through the clouds, its rays a perfect pyramid.

While wandering around I was clobbered by one of the nominal 'guards' - who seem to do more damage than even the tourists.  For the usual baksheesh he volunteered to show me the crypts, usually closed off to visitors.  He lifted some planks of wood, fumbled around for a dodgy light switch, went down some creaky stairs and then had me crawling - on all fours at times - through narrow, dusty tunnels, until we came to some fine alabaster reliefs of Hathor - mutilated unfortunately.  But what I remember above all else in this airless, confined closeness, was the overpowering stench of cigarettes on his breath.

Anyway, none of that today.  We arrived at Aswan about 10 am, then went straight to the hotel - which, by some miracle, had indeed received my booking, so at least we have a room here - not like the first time I came.  Since we took an early breakfast - prepared for us by the Savoy the night before, nothing special, but it filled a hole - we are lunching early too.  We have quite a lot to see in the next day and a half.

Out, first, to Philae, by taxis, then boat.  Pleasant enough on the water, the sun noticeably warmer here than in Luxor, but my heart sinks in Philae.  Yet more Ptolemaic stuff.  Hathor-headed columns in the Kiosk of Nectanebo - but nothing compared to Denderah.  Nice to see a colonnade for a change - shows how conditioned we are to 'classical' ruins.  Temple of Isis with standards reliefs, few hieroglyphs.  Good to see old Imhotep remembered here two thousand years after his breakthrough.  The Forecourt interesting because of its asymmetry.  Hypostyle hall all right - covered in black and white bird droppings which make it look like fake mottled marble.  Small temple of Hathor, notable only for its scenes of musicians - double-flute player and harpist.  That tantalisingly silent music again.  Best bit definitely the Kiosk of Trajan - partly because unlike the other stuff here, it does not pretend to be Egyptian: it looks what it is - Roman.  Surprisingly graceful and powerful.  Setting magic.

So, without much lingering, we take our motorised felucca back - but with a turn around old Philae to see if any of its charm remains.  But no Egyptian Atlantis in view, no submerged cathedral.  Instead, a few pillars on land, a few houses, plus the old tin dam that was built up around the threatened monuments.  Dull.

Out to the High Dam.  Impressive in a gross sort of way - 18 times the amount of material used in Khufu's Great Pyramid, world's largest artificial lake etc., etc., blah-blah-blah.  But the damage to the monuments both upstream and downstream - the latter through the effects of the rising North African water table, which is rotting the very foundations of the Ancient Egyptian buildings - and the total loss of those as yet undiscovered - terrible, and certainly not justified.  Lake Nasser looks like a huge sea, an incomprehensible dark-blue expanse stretching away into Africa.  They must have been pleased when it filled up.  Lots of military paranoia everywhere.  The Soviet-Egyptian monument rather out of style with everything else in the country.  Neo-Ptolemaic perhaps?

On the way back, we stop off at the Unfinished Obelisk.  Strange that it is such an attraction, this failure.  But then I suppose that failure tells you more than success.  And it is fascinating to think how it was hewn off the hillside with simple stones, and would have been levered off, had they not discovered the flaw, and then taken down to the Nile, to a waiting ship - as shown on a relief in Hatshepsut's mortuary complex - to be carried to Thebes, where it was intended to make a pair with the other great pink obelisk there.  Another of those unique, pinpointable moments in history: the day they found the flaw, their disbelief, their frustration.  Now it lies a monument to unfulfilled ambitions.

En route to the hotel, we stop off for tea at the Cataract Hotel - strange that something for tourists to use during their visits becomes something for them to visit in itself.  Feels a bit out of place this great maroony moorish villa.  Overpriced, rather pretentious - rather touristy in fact - but a fine location, looking across to Elephantine, the beasts down at the water.  Felucca sails pass by in ever-changing abstract compositions of shape and colour.  I am now drinking my tea.  And - but I can't be bothered writing all these words any more.  'The Ptolemy Factor' - good title for a book.  Must write it one day.  Enough.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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